Progress

I got an interesting question today: How do you feel about your past writing?

And wow is that a loaded question. I don’t think it’s any secret that I have hidden my first novel away for the time being. I don’t know if it’s unsalvageable, but it’s bad enough that it would take a good chunk of time to bring it up to a standard I’d be ok sharing with the world these days. It goes back to the “Your first novel is never as good as you think it is” point I’ve made a few times before (such as at the end of my recent interview here [look around the 3-minute mark]). Well, you might know that your first novel is awful, but as someone who has worked in acquisitions I know there are plenty of first novels that get sent out that most likely won’t be considered up to snuff as you get better (like, well, mine…) As I like to say, you may think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written, but that’s only because it has been up to that point. Writing is a skill. You get better the more you do it.

With that out of the way, though, lets break out my dusty old writing folder and see what I have from early on.

1. Librae
Here we go, the infamous first novel. Written at about 15, it’s the first longer work I finished. It still has a special place in my heart, but…shutter. Let’s look at this a little closer.

Length: 200,000 words. Yep this one got away from me, and that’s after a couple of rounds of edits. I’m sure it would have clocked in at at least 225,000 when first written. For some perspective, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is about 170,000, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is about 190,000. Yep, this is hundreds and hundreds of pages of first-time writer fun that outdoes the later Harry Potter books.

Plot: Ok, the plot isn’t too bad. I mean, it’s cliche, but not irredeemable. It’s about a bunch of teenagers who can control different elements (oddly enough, a common topic for first novels for some reason. I’ve seen a ton come through submissions and have edited many more). Honestly, it’s some sort of Harry Potter, Star Wars, The OC mix. Semi-enjoyable clichéd goodness all around.

Characters: Well, I can’t be too harsh on the characters here. They’re my babies. I mean, I spent 200,000 words talking about them (not including the completely useless conversations that they had in the middle of the book that I cut out and pasted in another document when I realized how insanely long it was). Main character is a bit off a Mary Sue–though I’d like to believe she isn’t completely unlikable. And not to be outdone, she has her male counterpart, the Gary Stu (or Marty/Larry Stu if you prefer). A good few of Miss Sue’s friends are based on friends I had in high school, which is always a good idea… Still, for all their problems, I still love them all. Even if hidden away, they are still my first cast of characters and will be defended beyond reason.

Writing: Gah. Prologue wreaks of having just watched the beginning of the first Lord of the Rings movie. It has so many beginning writer problems it makes me cringe. Yeah, I would definitely have to take a hatchet to that to make it anywhere near presentable. I have other projects I’m working on, and am not being paid to tackle that, so that’s not happening anytime soon.

2. Two or Two-Thousand: Next up, the yet (and more than likely forever) unfinished novel that was started after Librae in an attempt to keep up the writing pace. Again, a high school (junior year?) project.

Length: 40,000 when abandoned. If I remember correctly (again, this was a high school project, so it’s been a while since I’ve thought about it) it’s one of the “I thought of a better idea” casualties that plagued me up until NaNoWriMo in college gave me a reason to stick to project (and taught me all my writing didn’t have to be giant wannabe epics). 40,000 isn’t too bad (about halfway to a proper novel) but I’ve just finished all the beginning stuff, so it’s likely this would have stretched out to something completely unruly if I ever truly got into the main plot.

Plot: Again, not a completely awful idea. Clichéd again, but somewhere between fantasy and sci fi about a society where water is inaccessible and has to be manufactured (thus making it amazingly expensive). Not nearly as original as thought it was at the time (see my “Accidental Plagiarism” article) but not without merit.

Characters: Generally unlikable. Again, we have some Mary Sue/Gary Stu problems, though not as much of a problem as in Librae. Even without leaning more Mary Sue, the main characters see entirely unlikable reading it now.

Writing: Same beginning writer problems. Same awkward prologue right at the beginning (had to keep “my style” consistent for when these got published, don’t you know) though I suppose you can argue I’m learning a little.

3. Just Farrah: What I abandoned Two or Two-Thousand for. I believe this was senior year of high school. I might be wrong, however

Length: 20,000 when abandoned. I didn’t get far enough to have some idea about what it might have ended up at, but I at least have some hope that it wouldn’t have ended up as some 200,000 word behemoth

Plot: Eh, could be interesting. Not fantasy this time, but about a girl who secretly wants to be a singer, against her parent’s wishes, and thus moonlights in a club. Nothing special, but nothing awful.

Characters: No Mary Sues this time, but the majority are stock characters/two-dimensional. Main character is stock good girl who secretly isnt’ so good. Love interest is stock bad boy with heart of gold…and it goes on. Would need some serious character development if I were to revisit this.

Writing: Getting there. Not great but it doesn’t make me cringe at least.

And that, I believe, takes us through high school. If any of you are career writers/have been writing for years, I have to say it’s really interesting to go back over your old writing. Feels good to know you’re advancing. Perhaps if people ask nicely, I will be persuaded to share a couple of samples of just how much mine has changed in the future…for now, that file is closing again.

Beginning Writer Problems

Publishing Update: The contract for my new novel, The Bleeding Crowd, has been signed. Look for more updates as its August release date gets closer.

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As a freelance editor, I spend a good amount of time with other people’s not-quite finished masterpieces. Though I have edited for all manner of writers (from the first-time novelist to multiply-published) my three most recent jobs have been for either completely new novelists, or ones with only a little experience under their belts.

None have been especially bad (there are some novels I have gotten freelance which, I admit, have made me cringe) but I have seen some problems that seem to be a common theme. For all those aspiring novelists out there, here are a few things I’d suggest keeping an eye on.

1. “Very” abuse. I can understand it, the music at the club your characters have gone to isn’t just loud. Having gone to clubs, I know the particular level of loud club music is. “The music was very loud” is a “very” weak sentence though. Not only because of the “to be” verb (was) but because “very”, for the most part, just clutters up a sentence. There are such stronger words to use. “The music was deafening” or “my/his/her ears rang, the music shaking the walls” are both stronger (and more interesting).

2. Contractions. People speak with contractions. One of the easiest ways to make someone sounds stuffy/formal/like a non-native English speaker is to have them speak without contractions. Think about the people you talk to on a regular basis. Now think about which of these sounds more like what they would say: a) “I am going to go. He cannot now, so he will come when he is able.”  of b) “I’m going to go. He can’t now, so he’ll come when he’s able.”

3. If people are saying things, use dialogue. As with all of these suggestions, there are exceptions, but dialogue is one of the easiest ways to make your writing quick and engaging. Of course it has to be good dialogue, but even bad dialogue tends to be more interesting than, “he was telling me/him/her about this, and this, and this.”

4. You don’t need to account for every minute. It’s possible to skip time/stop when the interesting part of the scene is done. If you start every scene by a character waking up and end with them going to sleep (and it isn’t a conscious stylistic choice) take a closer look at the scene. Do you really just need the two main characters to meet? You can have “they looked at each other in the coffee shop” as the first line of the scene. It doesn’t have to be “she woke up, took a shower, thought about having breakfast, but then decided to just get a bagel at the coffee shop on the corner.” If it isn’t important/interesting, you can skip to the fun parts.

5. “To Be” verbs. I touched on this a bit before, but “to be” verbs (am, is, was, were…) are weak. Don’t worry about taking out every “to be” verb in your writing, but if it doesn’t need to be there, don’t use it. For example, it doesn’t have to be “The ball was falling.” “The ball fell” is better.

6. Adverbs. I’m hardly one of those editors who is against adverbs of any kind. If you’ve read any of my writing, you know I’m not against adverbs. Just like “very” abuse, the main problems with abusing adverbs is that often they’re used when a stronger word could be. It’s especially bad when coupled with “very” abuse. “He said very quietly.” What’s wrong with “He whispered.”? If you can say something in fewer words, it’s generally stronger.

7. Telling, not showing. Yeah, this saying is overused quite a big, but it does has its uses. It’s just not interesting reading “He was angry.” How is “he” feeling? Or if he isn’t the narrator, how does the narrator see “he” is mad? Is his pulse rising? Is his face turning red? Is he clenching his fists?

8. Vary sentence structure. If every sentence starts with the same word (generally “I” in first person or “He/She/[Character’s Name]” in third person, try to change up some sentences. Not everything has to be filtered though a character (to use an above example, it doesn’t have to be “I/He/She/[Character Name] saw the ball fall” it can just be “The ball fell.”) It’s also possible to change up complex sentences (“She started to walk down the dark street, her foot steps echoing on the walls.” can become “Her foot steps echoed on the wall as she…”)

9. Switching tenses. Something to just watch for, I see it far too often. You can write in present or past tense (there are plenty of debates over which is better, and past is more common, but it’s your choice). Just keep consistent. Few things seem more awkward than when you start a sentence in past tense and finish it in present.

As with anything else in creative writing, take what I say with a grain of salt. There’s a time and place for almost everything. It’s when you do things without thinking, without a reason for them, that it makes someone seem like a novice. All of the above are little things, easily correctable (I’m sure I did more than one of them when I was just starting to write). Writing, like anything else, is a skill. If it isn’t perfect to start, just keep practicing.

Even if something is the best thing you’ve ever written, it only is because you haven’t had the chance to write something even better.